Category Archives: Poetry

The twenty-ninth of September, 2011: a cretic foot, a distal phalanx, and a cheese-and-onion crisp

Some quotidian prosody for you (I should say, rather than quotidian, trivial – as that word stems from trivium, a coming-together of three streets, and it is streets with which I am today concerned).

‘Oxford Road’ is, in prosodic terms, an amphimacer or cretic foot. Its rhythm is strong-weak-strong – dum-dum-dum, Ox-ford-road.

‘Oxford Street’, despite having the same number of syllables, is a dactyl. I like the origin of the word ‘dactyl': it is Greek for ‘finger’, because a finger has one long joint and two short ones (the proximal (long), middle (short) and distal (short) phalanges, if you’re interested), and a prosodic dactyl has one stressed syllable (technically, in Greek, it’s a long syllable rather than a stressed one) followed by two unstressed ones. Ox-ford-street.

Interesting, that (and nice to have the proper words to express it). I think it is, anyway.

I suppose this is because ‘street’ is the default surname (you know what I mean) for a street. So when you say Ox-ford-road you’re sort of saying ‘Oxford – aha! you thought I was going to say street, but this’ll surprise you: I’m actually saying road!’.

Stephen Fry calls this “an oddity of English utterance”. Yes, I’m still reading The Ode Less Travelled.

It put me in mind of a similar oddity, delineated by Martin Amis in his Independent on Sunday review of the American writer Bill Buford’s Among The Thugs (1991), collected in The War Against Cliché (Jonathan Cape, 2001):

‘Among the Thugs’ is full of minor solecisms (Listen, mate… you might say THE Fulham Road but you never say THE  Fulham Broadway, okay?).

Of such thin stuff we build our local identities.

Again, there’s probably sound logic here. The Fulham Road is the road that goes to Fulham, regardless of what its actually called. In fact, ‘road’ might not even need a capital letter. Whereas Fulham Broadway is a given name, and must be used as such.

Incidentally, this same review was the one that got Amis in some hot water, as his description of fans at a football match – ‘the complexion and body scent of a cheese-and-onion crisp, and the eyes of pitbulls’, for starters – put intelligent football supporters like Nick Hornby on the defensive. But that’s a discussion for another Clutterbuck.

Clutterbuck, by the way, is also a dactyl.

The twenty-third of September, 2011: dirty sheets on the unmade bed and empty bottles on the unswept floor

I love this gag, from a Punch cartoon supposedly composed by AE Housman (it sounds convincingly Housmany to me), recalled by WH Auden, and recalled again by Stephen Fry in his excellent poetry primer The Ode Less Travelled (Arrow, 2007).

Two English teachers are walking in the woods. The first, on hearing birdsong, quotes Wordsworth:

Teacher 1: Oh cuckoo, shall I call thee bird/Or but a wandering voice?

Teacher 2: State the alternative preferred/With reasons for your choice.

The twenty-first of September, 2011: poor intoxicated little knave

Apologies to poetryphobes and/or misGeorgianists. Again the Clutterbuck returns to English poetry, and to the eighteenth century.

One of the most attractive features of the period is the feeling, apparently widespread among poets and writers, that there is literally nothing that you can’t write a poem about. The taste of the 18th-century poets where muses are concerned is eclectic verging on deranged.

It’s an approach that feels rather modern. It’s a vivifying reminder that old poetry isn’t in fact a soppy agglomeration of flowers, maidens, wars and skylarks (that all came later: blame the Romantics). In fact, I was recently leafing through The New Oxford Book Of Eighteenth-century Verse, R. Lonsdale ed. (OUP, 2009) in search of an ardent love poem (for research purposes) – and I couldn’t find one!

What it all recalls to me is the strapline adopted by the Harry Smith anthologies of American folk musicback when music was weird. This was a time when poetry was weird; just as weird as life.

I’m not going to quote. I don’t need to. The titles are enough. How about To A Young Woman With Some Lampreys (John Gay)? Or Written For My Son, At His First Putting On Breeches (Mary Barber)? Or There’s Life In A Mussel: A Meditation (George Farewell)?

Thomas Gray is best-known for his Elegy In A Country Churchyard, but personally I’m more fond of his Ode On The Death Of A Favourite Cat, Drowned In A Tub of Gold Fishes (‘The slipp’ry verge her feet beguiled,/She tumbled headlong in’).

Then there’s On Losing My Pocket Milton At Luss (Robert Andrews). Or An Elegy On The Death of Dobbin, the Butterwoman’s Horse (Francis Fawkes). Or Lines Written Upon A Window-shutter at Weston (William Cowper).

I think my favourite might be John Wolcot’s To A Fly, Taken Out Of A Bowl Of Punch (‘Ah! poor intoxicated little knave…’). This, of course, is the milieu that also gave us Burns, with his addresses to lice and mice and haggises and so on.

Even if it sometimes recalls William Topaz McGonagall (‘But during my short stay, and while wandering there,/Mr Spurgeon was the only man I heard speaking proper English I do declare.’) and sometimes Vogon poetry (‘Ode to a Small Lump of Green Putty I Found in My Armpit One Midsummer Morning’), it’s all just so damn’ invigorating.

The heedless intermixing of ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture, of the ‘profound’ and the ‘trivial’, would – like a great deal of eighteenth-century literature – have to be called post-modern, if only it weren’t all so decidedly pre-modern.

The twentieth of September, 2011: the goat and compasses

A poem, stumbled across in a 1922 anthology of poems.

When evening came and the warm glow grew deeper,

And every tree that bordered the green meadows,

And in the yellow cornfields every reaper

And every corn-shock stood above their shadows

Flung eastward from their feet in longer measure,

Serenely far there swam in the sunny height

A buzzard and his mate who took their pleasure

Swirling and poising idly in golden light.

On great pied motionless moth-wings borne along,

So effortless and so strong,

Cutting each other’s paths together they glided,

Then wheeled asunder till they soared divided

Two valleys’ width (as though it were delight

To part like this, being sure they could unite

So swiftly in their empty, free dominion),

Curved headlong downward, towered up the sunny steep,

Then, with a sudden lift of the one great pinion,

Swung proudly to a curve, and from its height

Took half a mile of sunlight in one long sweep.

And so we, so small on the swift immense hillside,

Stood tranced, until our souls arose uplifted

On those far-sweeping, wide,

Strong curves of flight – swayed up and hugely drifted,

Were washed, made strong and beautiful in the tide

Of sun-bathed air. But far beneath, beholden

Through shining deeps of air, the fields were golden

And rosy burned the heather where the cornfields ended.

And still those buzzards whirled, while light withdrew

Out of the vales and to surging slopes ascended,

Till the loftiest flaming summit died to blue.

‘The Buzzards’, by Martin Armstrong. I don’t know anything about Martin Armstrong, but I love ‘pied motionless moth-wings’ (as the poet Matt Merritt has pointed out, one of the striking things about buzzards is how different they can look in different circumstances), and I love the sense of encroaching dusk, which recalls Edward Thomas’ Two Pewits “riding the dark surge silently”.

I’ve just looked up Martin Armstrong in the DNB, and am now faintly embarrassed to admit to never having heard of him. In brief: poet and novelist (1882-1974), Newcastle-born, author of The Buzzards And Other Poems (1921) and novels including The Goat and Compasses (1925) (good name for a pub), associated with the then-popular Georgian poets de la Mare and Blunden.

Anthony Bertram described him as:

essentially level-headed, and his keen mind, his tolerance and his wit were never marred by prejudice. It was that balance which enabled him to write such exquisite prose; and it was a fine human sympathy, working unostentatiously under his dry exterior, that flowered in the tenderness of his stories. Through his poems, but never in his workaday life, one saw into a glamorous and tragic imagination.

I fear he lived and worked in a time when it was very hard to be a good poet.

And now, having opened that book to type out the poem, my hands smell like a second-hand bookshop.

The sixteenth of September, 2011: a scene-setting phrasemaker of the first echelon

A few insightful words from Martin Amis on Philip Larkin (whom Amis describes unerringly as “a novelist’s poet”):

Who else takes us, and takes us so often, from sunlit levity to mellifluous gloom? And let it be emphasised that Larkin is never ‘depressing’. Achieved art is quite incapable of lowering the spirits. If this were not so, each performance of King Lear would end in a Jonestown.

Quite so. That’s from Amis’s preface to his edition of Larkin’s Poems (Faber and Faber, 2011).

The twenty-fourth of May, 2011: their hearts are set upon the waste fells

Our t-dropping, vowel-flattening northern spin-off of London’s lovely Liars’ League officially opens for business this week. The League is looking for stories on the theme North & South – so in a nod to that, here’s a poem.

When I am living in the Midlands

That are sodden and unkind,

I light my lamp in the evening:

My work is left behind;

And the great hills of the South Country

Come back into my mind.

The great hills of the South Country

They stand along the sea;

And it’s there walking in the high woods

That I could wish to be,

And the men that were boys when I was a boy

Walking along with me.

The men that live in North England

I saw them for a day:

Their hearts are set upon the waste fells,

Their skies are fast and grey:

From their castle-walls a man may see

The mountains far away.

That’s from ‘The South Country’ by Hilaire Belloc. It goes on for a fair while longer, but I  won’t quote any more because it all gets a bit nauseating (‘But the men that live in the South Country/Are the kindest and most wise’).

I found ‘The South Country’ in one of the first poetry books I ever seriously read: The Golden Book of Modern English Poetry 1870-1930, T. Caldwell ed. (JM Dent & Sons, 1930). It’s full of selections from what we might call the Doggerel Age – the sort of thing that Molesworth is taught to recite at school,  and that Bertie Wooster likes to drop into conversation.

Being too late for Tennyson, too early for Auden and Eliot and too English for Yeats, it’s mostly rot (save Hardy, Chesterton, Kipling and a ragged battalion of war poets):  Noyes (but no ‘The Highwayman’, boo!), Masefield, Hodgson, Rolleston. It’s a miserable parade of mediocrity – unless you’re fourteen and it’s the first poetry book you’ve ever seriously read, in which case it’s just great.

The fourth of May, 2011: nowhere to go but indoors

Clutterbuck has fallen shamefully behind schedule. Work, you see.

Yesterday I saw a toad. I was in fact only a few moments away from treading on a toad. Toads – like kingfishers and Hollywood stars (‘something to do with the condensed, the concentrated presence’ – Martin Amis, Money) – are always smaller than you expect. But I didn’t tread on it.

And now here’s a poem.

Why should I let the toad work

Squat on my life?

Can’t I use my wit as a pitchfork

And drive the brute off?

Six days of the week it soils

With its sickening poison -

Just for paying a few bills!

That’s out of proportion.

Lots of folk live on their wits:

Lecturers, lispers,

Losels, loblolly-men, louts -

They don’t end as paupers;

Lots of folk live up lanes

With fires in a bucket,

Eat windfalls and tinned sardines -

they seem to like it.

Their nippers have got bare feet,

Their unspeakable wives

Are skinny as whippets – and yet

No one actually starves.

Ah, were I courageous enough

To shout Stuff your pension!

But I know, all too well, that’s the stuff

That dreams are made on:

For something sufficiently toad-like

Squats in me, too;

Its hunkers are heavy as hard luck,

And cold as snow,

And will never allow me to blarney

My way of getting

The fame and the girl and the money

All at one sitting.

I don’t say, one bodies the other

One’s spiritual truth;

But I do say it’s hard to lose either,

When you have both.

 That’s Philip Larkin’s ‘Toads’ (1954). Larkin worked for thirty years as a librarian at the University of Hull.

I love Larkin’s sequel to this poem, ‘Toads Revisited‘, which he wrote eight years later, in 1962. It ends: ‘Give me your arm, old toad;/Help me down Cemetery Road’.